When announced he was going to "refine" his position on Iraq last week, not surprisingly many of his supporters were in a snit. It's hard to blame them.
Obama campaigned on a promise to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq immediately, at the rate of a brigade or two a month, effectively removing the U.S. presence within 16 months of him assuming office. To bolster his antiwar credentials when jumping into the primary, in January of 2007 he introduced legislation in the Senate to have all of the troops out of Iraq by March of this year. And during the primary, he reminded anyone with a microphone that he was the only major candidate who had opposed the Iraq war from the beginning. If Obama were to refine his positions such that he were no longer explicitly in favor of ending the Iraq war promptly, it could represent a significant blow to his credibility among party activists and longtime supporters.
For his part, Obama seems to be feigning incredulity that anyone would be paying attention to how a presidential candidate "refines" his signature issue. "I was a little puzzled by the frenzy that I set off by what I thought was a pretty innocuous statement," he told the Associated Press. "I am absolutely committed to ending the war."
However, those paying close attention will note that Obama has significantly moderated his original antiwar and foreign-policy positions in recent months. Democrats and Obama supporters will be loathe to admit it, but Obama stands poised to adopt the three major elements of the Bush-administration foreign policy - staying the course in Iraq, endorsing the doctrine of preventative war and the strategic expansion of executive power to fight the war on terror.
While Obama hasn't committed to any specifics regarding how he'll change his Iraq position, evidence points to Obama doing almost a complete about-face on Iraq withdrawal. As George Packer observed in a recent issue of The New Yorker, recent success in Iraq has put Obama in a tricky spot - rapid withdrawal at a time the U.S. is succeeding would not be popular with mainstream voters, but going back on his promise to end the war would not be popular with the candidate's base. "With the general election four months away, Obama's rhetoric on the topic now seems outdated and out of touch, and the nominee-apparent may have a political problem concerning the very issue that did so much to bring him this far," Packer wrote.
Packer further notes that the Center for a New American Security - "something like Obama's foreign-policy think tank" - is urging a plan of "conditional engagement" not tied to a timetable. And former Obama adviser Samantha Power, not known for her discretion, told the BBC Obama "will, of course, not rely on some plan that he's crafted as a presidential candidate or a U.S. Senator. He will rely upon a plan - an operational plan - that he pulls together in consultation with people who are on the ground to whom he doesn't have daily access now . . . It would be the height of ideology to sort of say, 'Well, I said it, therefore I'm going to impose it on whatever reality greets me.'" There are even reports that Obama might be trying to retain Bush Defense Secretary Robert Gates, which would provide a degree of strategic continuity.
In other words, Obama will get the U.S. out of Iraq when it appears prudent to do so. That is, as far as anyone can tell, is also the Bush administration's position. Those on the left hanging their hopes on Obama ending the war swiftly might be in for a rude awakening.
Then there's the Left's ideological objection the Bush administration embracing the doctrine of preventative war. In a much discussed article oped in the Boston Globe last week, Boston University Professor Andrew Bacevich excoriated the Bush administration for his foreign-policy legacy and called Obama to "persuade Americans to repudiate the Bush legacy and to choose another course."
In particular, he lamented that the Bush administration had "promulgated and implemented a doctrine of preventive war, thereby creating a far more permissive rationale for employing armed force." Bacevich did not, however, take note of the fact that Obama has himself endorsed the doctrine of preventative war.
In his speech to AIPCE in early June, Obama said of Israel's bombing of a Syrian site believed to be a nascent nuclear reactor, "Syria has taken dangerous steps in pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, which is why Israeli action was justified to end that threat."
That's even farther than the Reagan administration was willing to go when Israel bombed the Osirak Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981. While it tacitly approved of Israel's actions, as a matter of public policy the administration supported a U.N. Resolution condemning Israel's actions and withheld a promised shipment of aircraft in response.
This acceptance of preventative war has major implications for Obama's stance on Iran. According to the Chicago Tribune, Obama has said "global leaders must do whatever it takes to stop Iran from enriching uranium and acquiring nuclear weapons." Presumably, "whatever it takes" would include bombing Iranian reactors, and other preemptive attacks on Iran. So while Obama has said he doesn't believe diplomatic options with Iran are exhausted, he is not on principle opposed to preventive attacks on Iran, a position that is complete anathema to many supporters.
Finally, Obama's near complete reversal on Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and the Patriot Act show that he ultimately supports the Bush administration's expansion of executive power to fight the war on terrorism. With his support of the compromise FISA, he's not just going back on his previous position on FISA legislation but embracing a warrantless-surveillance program that most liberal Democrats have opposed on constitutional grounds.
In a recent oped for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, liberal standard-bearer Sen. Russ Feingold wrote, "When the president claimed that he could wiretap innocent Americans without a warrant, he asserted one of the most intrusive government powers imaginable." By Feingold's own logic, Obama is not averse to wielding the "most intrusive government powers imaginable" for himself. Similarly, before Obama was in the Senate, he said he supported repealing the Patriot Act, but after he was in the Senate he voted to reauthorize it. (To be fair, it was reauthorized with minor changes.)
No doubt many people are eager to support Obama's foreign policy because of pragmatic issues, or in response to the perceived incompetence of the Bush administration. And nobody's arguing that there aren't other, very important differences between the Obama, Bush, and McCain foreign policies - Israel is a point of contention, among other issues.
But if significant numbers of Democrats are supporting Obama because they believe he represents a complete ideological break from the Bush administration's foreign policy, they're kidding themselves. Ultimately, electing Barack Obama may go a long way toward validating much of Bush's foreign-policy legacy.
By Mark Hemingway
Reprinted with permission from National Review Online